Twelve ayatanas (Skt. dvādaśāyatana; Pali. dvādas’ āyatanāni; T. skye mched bcu gnyis སྐྱེ་མཆེད་བཅུ་གཉིས་), or twelve sense bases or twelve sense spheres, are defined within the Abhidharma teachings as sense-fields which serve as the bases for the production of consciousness.
The twelve ayatanas (or sense bases) consist of:
- six external sense bases (sights, sounds, smells, etc.)
- six internal sense bases (eye base, ear base, nose base, etc.)
Thus, there are six internal-external (base-object) pairs of sense bases:
- eye base + visible forms (sights)
- ear base + sound
- nose base + smells
- tongue base + taste
- body base + tangible objects
- mind base + mental objects
Buddhism identifies six "senses" as opposed to the Western identification of five. In Buddhism, "mind" denotes an internal sense organ which interacts with sense objects that include sense impressions, feelings, perceptions and volition.
It is said that ayatana is the door through which experience enters.
- Aya means arrival and
- Tana means that which furthers or extends or goes
- kyé means to be born or to arrive.
- ché (or chépa) means extending or going further
What is arriving and then spreading is sensation, which is differentiated in six ways.
- twelve sense fields (Buswell)
- twelve bases of cognition (Buswell)
- twelve sources of consciousness
- twelve sense-fields
- twelve sense spheres
- twelve sense sources
- twelve sensory activity fields
- twelve sense bases (Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidharma)
- twelve sense media (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Dhammatalks, glossary)
External sense bases
- sights (Skt. rūpa-āyatana; T. gzugs kyi skye mched)
- sounds (Skt. śabda-āyatana; T. sgra'i skye mched)
- smells (Skt. gandha-āyatana; T. dri'i skye mched)
- tastes (Skt. rasa-āyatana; T. ro'i skye mched)
- tangible objects (Skt. spraṣṭavya-āyatana; T. reg bya'i skye mched)
- mental objects (Skt. dharma-āyatana; T. chos kyi skye mched)
Rupa-ayatana (visible forms)
Rupa-ayatana is translated as "visible objects" or "sights". In the context of the sense bases, rūpa-ayatana refers to visual objects (or objects knowable by the eye through light). This should not be confused with the the term rupa-skandha in the context of the five skandhas, which refers to all material objects, both of the world and the body.
Thus, when comparing these two uses of rūpa, the rupa aggregate (rupa-skandha) includes the rūpa sense-object (rupa-ayatana) as well as the four other material sense-objects (sound, odor, taste and touch).
Dharma-ayatana (mental objects)
Dharma-ayatana is translated here as "mental objects". Other frequently seen translations include
- "mental phenomena" (e.g., Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1135ff.),
- "ideas" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and
- "contents of the mind" (VRI, 1996, p. 39)
Internal sense bases
- eye base (Skt. cakṣur-āyatana; T. mig gi skye mched)
- ear base (Skt. śrotra-āyatana; T. rna ba'i skye mched)
- nose base' (Skt. ghrāṇa-āyatana; T. sna'i skye mched)
- tongue base (Skt. jihva-āyatana; T. lce'i skye mched)
- body base (Skt.kāya-āyatana; T. lus kyi skye mched)
- mind base (Skt. mano-āyatana; T. yid kyi skye mched)
The internal sense bases (Pali: ajjhattikāni āyatanāni) are also known as, "organs", "gates", "doors", "powers" or "roots"
The five internal sense bases
These internal sense bases are not the gross organs themselves (e.g., the eye, ear, etc.), but subtle matter within them.
For more information, see: five sense faculties.
The mind base (mano-ayatana)
In regards to the mind base (mano-āyatana), Pali texts distinguish between consciousness arising from the five physical sense bases and that arising from the the "life-continuum" or "unconscious mind" (bhavaṅga-mana):
- "Of the consciousness or mind aggregate included in a course of cognition of eye-consciousness, just the eye-base [not the mind-base] is the 'door' of origin, and the [external sense] base of the material form is the visible object. So it is in the case of the others [that is, the ear, nose, tongue and body sense bases]. But of the sixth sense-base the part of the mind base called the life-continuum, the unconscious mind, is the 'door' of origin...."
The mind base (mano-āyatana) is also distinguished from the mind faculty (manendriya) within the scheme of the eighteen dhatus as follows: in the eighteen dhatus, the mind sense base (mano-āyatana) is divided into seven parts:
- the mind faculty (manendriya) and
- the six types of consciousness.
Relation to the four noble truths
In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identifies that the origin of suffering (Pali, Skt.: dukkha) is craving (Pali: taṇhā; Skt.: tṛṣṇā). In the chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha identifies that craving arises from sensations that result from contact at the six sense bases. Therefore, to overcome craving and its resultant suffering, one should develop restraint of and insight into the sense bases.
Names of sense bases in the Pali language
The dhatus are expressed in the Pali langauge as follows:
- Dvādas’ āyatanāni: cakkhāyatanaṃ, sotāyatanaṃ, ghānāyatanaṃ, jivhāyatanaṃ, kāyāyatanaṃ, manāyatanaṃ, rūpāyatanaṃ, saddāyatanaṃ, gandhāyatanaṃ, rasāyatanaṃ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṃ, dhammāyatanaṃ.
Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these elements as follows:
- The twelve sense bases are: (1) the eye base, (2) the ear base, (3) the nose base, (4) the tongue base, (5) the body base, (6) the mind base, (7) the visible form base, (8) the sound base, (9) the smell base, (10) the taste base, (11) the tangible base, (12) the mental-object base.
The Garland of Radiant Light states:
- The belief that the self is that which encounters, or consumes, is eliminated by gaining expertise regarding the sense sources. All phenomena are included within the sense sources; nothing exists apart from these twelve. The six outer sense sources are encountered by the six inner sense sources. Thus, it is realized that there is no consumer other than merely the inner sense sources.
Relation to other modes of analysis
The abhidharma tradition presents multiple modes with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. The three most common methods of investigation are:
- five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
- twelve ayatanas
- eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)
Comparison with the eighteen dhatus
The eighteen dhatus are related to the twelve ayatanas as follows: in the scheme of the 18 dhatus, the "mind base" of the 12 ayatanas is divided into seven parts: the mind faculty + the six types of consciousness.
Comparision with the five skandhas
- sense medium (singlular, i.e. ayatana); sense media (plural) - Thanissaro Bhikkhu Dhammatalks, glossary
- sense bases
- sense spheres
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana.
- Hamilton (2001), p. 53, writes: "... six senses, including one relating to non-sensory mental activity, are recognized in Buddhism and other Indian schools of thought...."
- See also Pine 2004, pg. 101. Red Pine argues that this scheme probably predates Buddhism, because it has ten external members (ear, sound, nose, odor, tongue, taste, body, touch) corresponding to the single external skandha (form), and only two internal members (mind and thought) corresponding to the four internal skandhas.
- See, for instance, Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
- Goodman 2020, s.v. "Sense Bases (Ayatanas)".
- Pine 2004, pg. 103
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. twelve sense fields/bases of cognition.
- Twelve ayatanas
- Translation of eye base, etc., is used by Bikkhu Bodhi; see Connected Discourses - Selections
- Pine 2004, pg. 102
- Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
- Regarding bhavaṅga being a primarily post-canonical concept, see Matthews (1995, p. 128) where he states for instance: "Bhavaṅga does not occur in the Sutta Pitaka, but its appearance in both the Dhammasangani and the Patthana assured that it received much post-classical attention in the Theravāda."
- Soma (2003), p. 133. This excerpt is from the subcommentary to the Majjhima Nikāya, the Līnatthapakāsanā Tīkā.
- Bodhi (2005b), starting at time 50:00. Bodhi (2005b) references, for instance, Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 149, where the Buddha instructs:
- "...[K]nowing & seeing the eye as it actually is present, knowing & seeing [visible] forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye as they actually are present, knowing & seeing whatever arises conditioned through contact at the eye – experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain – as it actually is present, one is not infatuated with the eye... forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye... whatever arises.... The craving that makes for further becoming – accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that – is abandoned by him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances are abandoned. His bodily torments & mental torments are abandoned. His bodily distresses & mental distresses are abandoned. He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of awareness..." (Thanissaro, 1998c).
- Bodhi (2000a), Section "The Twelve Sense Bases"
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2007, s.v. Ten views of self.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. "The Eighteen Elements".
- Aung, S.Z. & C.A.F. Rhys Davids (trans.) (1910). Compendium of Philosophy (Translation of the Abhidhamm'attha-sangaha). Chipstead: Pali Text Society. Cited in Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–5).
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-02-9.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. (Part IV is "The Book of the Six Sense Bases (Salayatanavagga)".) Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005a). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (18 Jan 2005b). MN 10: Satipatthana Sutta (continued) (MP3 audio file) [In this series of talks on the Majjhima Nikaya, this is Bodhi's ninth talk on the Satipatthana Sutta. In this talk, the discussion regarding the sense bases starts at time 45:36]. Available on-line at http://www.bodhimonastery.net/MP3/M0060_MN-010.mp3.
- Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. (Chapter XV is "The Bases and Elements (Ayatana-dhatu-niddesa)".) Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2007), Middle Beyond Extremes: Maitreya's Madhyantavibhaga with Commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham, Snow Lion Publications
- Goodman, Steven D. (2020), The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening: An In-Depth Guide to the Abhidharma (Apple Books ed.), Shambhala Publications
- Hamilton, Sue (2001). Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-285374-5.
- Matthews, Bruce (1995). "Post-Classical Developments in the Concepts of Karma and Rebirth in Theravāda Buddhism," in Ronald W. Neufeldt (ed.), Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments. Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications. (Originally published by the State University of New York, 1986). ISBN 81-7030-430-X.
- Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
- Rhys Davids, Caroline A.F. (, 2003). Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, of the Fourth Century B.C., Being a Translation, now made for the First Time, from the Original Pāli, of the First Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, entitled Dhamma-Saṅgaṇi (Compendium of States or Phenomena). Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-4702-9.
- Mipham (2007). Middle Beyond Extremes: Maitreya's Madhyantavibhaga with Commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Snow Lion Publications. Ithica.
- Red Pine. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Shoemaker & Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4
- Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921–5). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society. A general on-line search engine for the PED is available at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/.
- Soma Thera (trans.) (1999). The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness (MN 10). Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.soma.html.
- Soma Thera (2003). The Way of Mindfulness: English translation of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta Commentary. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0256-5.
- Upatissa, Arahant, N.R.M. Ehara (trans.), Soma Thera (trans.) and Kheminda Thera (trans.) (1995). The Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0054-6.
- Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) (trans.) (1996). Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness (Pali-English edition). Seattle, WA: Vipassana Research Publications of America. ISBN 0-9649484-0-0.
- "Salayatana Vagga – The Section on the Six Sense Bases" of the Samyutta Nikaya, on www.accesstoinsight.org
- Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In The Buddha’s Words IX: Shining the Light of Wisdom
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